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Earthquakes can cause buildings and bridges to collapse, down telephone and power lines, and result in fires, explosions and landslides. Earthquakes can also cause huge ocean waves, called tsunamis [soo-nah’-mees], which travel long distances over water until they hit coastal areas.

Our planet’s surface is actually made up of slowly-moving sections called tectonic plates that can build up friction or stress in the crust as they creep around. An earthquake occurs when this built up stress is suddenly released and transmitted to the surface of the earth by earthquake waves (called seismic waves).

There are millions of earthquakes, or seismic tremors, every year around the world. Most earthquakes are too small to be felt, but when they happen, you will feel shaking, quickly followed by a rolling motion that can rotate up, down, and sideways that lasts from a few seconds to several minutes.


Learn the buzzwords - Learn the terms / words used with earthquakes...

  • Earthquake - a sudden slipping of the earth’s crust that causes a series of vibrations
  • Aftershock - usually not as strong as earthquake but can occur for hours, days, months or years after a main quake
  • Fault - area of weakness where two sections of crust have separated
  • Subduction zone - where 2 tectonic plates collide and one plate dives or “subducts” underneath the other
  • Epicenter - area of the earth’s surface directly above the crust that caused the quake
  • Seismic Waves - vibrations that travel from the center of the earthquake to the surface
  • Magnitude - used to define how much energy was released (A Richter Scale is the device used to measure this energy on a scale from 0-10 ... each whole number equals an increase of about 30 times the energy released meaning a 5.0 is about 30 times stronger than a 4.0.)

Reduce risks - Look for things that could be hazardous and secure loose stuff...
-- Place large or heavy objects on lower shelves and fasten shelves to walls, if possible.
-- Use nylon straps or L-braces to secure cabinets, bookcases and other tall furniture to the wall.
-- Secure heavy appliances like water heaters, refrigerators, etc. using bands of perforated steel (plumber’s tape).
-- Use buckles or safety straps to secure computers, TVs, stereos and other equipment to tabletops.
-- Use earthquake or florist putty to tack down glassware, heirlooms and figurines.
-- Hang heavy pictures and mirrors away from beds.
-- Store bottled foods, glass, china and other breakables on low shelves or in cabinets that can fasten shut.
-- Repair faulty electrical wiring and leaky gas connections.

Consider retrofitting your home - There are options to retrofit or reinforce your home’s foundation and frame available from reputable contractors who follow strict building codes. Other earthquake-safety measures include installing flexible gas lines and automatic gas shutoff valves. Changes to gas lines and plumbing in your house must be done by a licensed contractor who will ensure that the work is done correctly and according to code. This is important for your safety.

Learn to shut off - Know where and how to shut off electricity, gas and water at main switches and valves -- ask local utilities for instructions.

Do drills - Hold earthquake drills with your family to learn what to do...
-- DROP - drop down to the floor
-- COVER - get under heavy desk or table or against inside wall protecting head and neck with your arms
-- HOLD ON - grab something sturdy, be ready to move with it and hold on until shaking stops!

Make a plan - Develop a Family Emergency Plan (e.g. establish meeting places, list of emergency contact #s, out of state contact person, etc) and Disaster Supplies Kits/BOBs

Check policies - Review your insurance policies. Some damage may be covered even without specific earthquake insurance.


Stay calm & be aware - Watch for falling objects and find a safe spot! Realize most injuries happen when people are hit by things when running IN or OUT of buildings.

IF INDOORS – Stay inside and ...
-- Avoid danger zones like glass, windows, heavy things that can fall over or down on you.
-- DROP, COVER and HOLD on until the shaking stops. If there isn’t a table or desk near you, cover face and head with arms and crouch in an inside corner of the building.

IF IN A HIGH-RISE BUILDING – Stay on the same floor!
-- Move away from outside walls and windows.
-- Stay on the same floor - you may not have to evacuate.
-- Realize electricity may go out and alarms and sprinkler systems may go on.
-- DO NOT use the elevators!

IF OUTDOORS - Stay outside and, if possible, move away from buildings, signs, trees, power lines and street lights.

IF IN A MOVING VEHICLE - Stop as quickly and safely as you can!
-- Try not to stop near buildings, trees, overpasses, or power lines and stay in vehicle until shaking stops.
-- Watch for road and bridge damage and be ready for aftershocks once you drive again.

If you are trapped in an area:

  • light - use a flashlight (if you have one) – do not use matches or lighters in case of gas leaks
  • be still - try to stay still so you won’t kick up dust
  • breathing - cover your mouth with a piece of clothing
  • make noise - tap on a pipe or wall so rescuers can hear you (shouting may cause you to inhale a lot of dust)


Aftershocks - Usually not as strong but can cause more damage to weakened structures and may continue for days, months or even years.

Injuries - Check yourself and people around you for injuries - do not try to move seriously injured people unless they are in danger. If you must move a person who is passed out keep their head and neck still and call for help, if possible.

Light - Never use candles, matches or lighters since there might be gas leaks. Use flashlights or battery powered lanterns.

Check chimney - First check from a distance to see if chimney looks normal and have a professional check it if it looks strange. Check out the Chimney Safety Institute of America’s homeowner tips at

Clean up - Any flammable liquids (bleaches, gasoline, etc.) should be cleaned up immediately.

Inspect - Check all utility lines and appliances for damage:

  • smell gas or hear hissing - open a window and leave quickly. Shut off main valve outside, if possible, and call a professional to turn it back on when it’s safe
  • electrical damage - switch off power at main fuse box or circuit breaker
  • water pipes - shut off water supply at the main valve
  • toilets - do not use until you know sewage lines are okay

Water - If water is cut off or contaminated then use water from your Disaster Supplies Kit or other clean water sources.

Power - If you use a generator, keep it outside and follow manufacturer’s instructions.

Phones - Keep calls to a minimum to report emergencies since most lines will be down.

Listen - Keep up on news reports for the latest information.

Things to avoid:

  • going out - try to stay off the roads to reduce risk
  • stay away - unless emergency crew or First Responders ask for your help stay away from damaged areas
  • downed power wires

Tsunami - If you live near the coast, a tsunami can crash into the shorelines so listen for warnings by local authorities.

RED or GREEN sign in window – After a disaster, Volunteers and Emergency Service personnel will be going door-to-door to check on people. By placing a sign in your window that faces the street near the door, you can let them know if you need them to STOP HERE or MOVE ON. Either use a piece of RED or GREEN construction paper or draw a big RED or GREEN “X” (using a crayon or marker) on a piece of paper and tape it in the window.
-- RED means STOP HERE!
-- Nothing in the window would also mean STOP HERE!

What to wear – Use sturdy work boots and gloves.

Check outside first - Before you go inside, walk around outside to check for loose power lines, gas leaks, and structural damage.

Use a flashlight - There may be gas or other flammable materials in the area so use a battery-operated flashlight (do not use oil, gas lanterns, candles or torches and don’t smoke!)

Things to check - Some things you want to do first…

  • Check for cracks in the roof, foundation and chimneys.
  • Watch out for loose boards and slippery floors.
  • Check for gas leaks (smells like rotten eggs, hear a hissing or blowing sound or see discolored plants or grass) ...
    • Start with the hot water heater then check other appliances.
    • Turn off main valve from outside and call gas company.
  • Check electrical system (watch for sparks, broken wires or the smell of hot insulation) ...
    • Turn off electricity at main fuse box or circuit breaker.
    • DO NOT touch fuse box, circuit breaker or wires if in water or if you’re wet!
  • Check appliances after turning off electricity at main fuse and, if wet, unplug and let them dry out. Call a professional to check them before using.
  • Check water and sewage system and, if pipes are damaged, turn off main water valve.
  • Clean up any spilled medicines, bleaches, gasoline, etc.
  • Open cabinets carefully since things may fall out.
  • Look for valuable items (jewelry, etc.) and protect them.
  • Try to patch up holes, windows and doors to protect home from further damage.
  • Check with local authorities about water since it could be contaminated. Wells should be pumped out and the water tested before using, too.
  • Throw out food, makeup and medicines that may have been exposed to flood waters and check refrigerated foods to see if they are spoiled. If frozen foods have ice crystals in them then okay to refreeze.

Take & share pics - If you have a camera phone, take shots of the damage to your home or place of business since it may take days before an adjuster gets there. It can also be a way to share updates with neighbors who aren’t able to get to the site. The photos could also be uploaded to First Responders and/or media to help prioritize the response efforts.

Call a professional - If you have any doubts about the safety of your home, contact a professional inspector.

Download above in a 4-page PDF and find other safety topics from It's A Disaster!

Above from IT'S A DISASTER! …and what are YOU gonna do about it? book (proceeds benefit USFRA) - learn more

For more info and to monitor earthquake activity…

USGS Earthquake Hazards Program

Southern California Earthquake Center

St Louis Univ Earthquake Center

Arkansas Center for Earthquake Education and Technology Transfer

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Also review some Tsunami safety tips here on USFRA at


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